Do we need a strong Mayor or a City with increased powers?

Presentation to the Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy, August 30, 2022

Re: Bill 3 – 2022 An Act to amend various statutes with respect to special powers and duties of heads of council
(Short title – Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, 2022)

The Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods (Ontario) Inc. (FUN) provides a provincial voice for residents’ associations in Ontario’s urban areas. Residents’ associations are composed of volunteer citizens who are engaged with their municipal governments in civic matters including land use planning and development, transportation, services provision, and fiscal matters.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback on the legislation that would give “strong mayor” powers to municipal mayors – initially the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa. Since the July announcement, the idea has received an increasing amount of media attention, most of it criticism and skepticism. The most frequent reaction is, “why is this measure necessary?” A good question indeed, at least in the case of Toronto.

Mayor Tory has been able to win just about every vote that he wanted to win, as the Toronto Star’s Shawn Micallef notes, “with his endless political capital and control over council that makes other mayors jealous.”

This legislation is unprecedented and marks a huge shift in governance of Ontario’s municipalities. Urban municipalities are governed by democratically elected City Councils. The decisions of civic governments have been the collective responsibility of those elected City Councils not the singular responsibility of one member. While democracy isn’t always perfect, citizens of urban municipalities have generally been satisfied with their form of representative government.

Bill 3’s Schedule 2 permits the Minister of Municipal Affairs & Housing to designate municipalities to be subject to its provisions. It is our understanding that Minister will designate Toronto and Ottawa under Schedule 2, despite no consultation or consent from its citizens on the necessity of this arbitrary move. We oppose this initiative.

The legislation seems to assume that the best form of governance is one where one person has autocratic powers to enable them to get their way. In our opinion the best form of city governance is one where the mayor has to win the support of council through providing sound leadership and championing initiatives that are well thought out, and also respect the needs and wishes of Councillors across the city.

That last point raises the question of the impact of a strong mayor on the ward councillors. Will the “strong mayor” system diminish the role of the local councillor – and will the question at election time become “can she/he work with the mayor’s agenda?” rather than, “will she/he represent the interests of the ward?”

And at a more fundamental level, how does the “strong mayor” address the key problem facing the City of Toronto – its increasing financial problems? This year the fiscal gap is in the order of $800 million; next year it’s much larger, partly due to the Province amending the Development Charges legislation and the Planning Act. For instance the Section 37 (Community Benefits) switch from a being a “density bonus” to a land value rate basis is estimated by City staff to reduce Toronto’s Section 37 revenue by 40%.

The fundamental imbalance between the City’s revenue needs and its over-reliance on property taxes, and the annual begging excursion to Queen’s Park is not new, but it is getting much worse, and dangerously so. Toronto is a dynamic driving force in the Province and should not be treated in this way. By offering Toronto and Ottawa a “strong mayor” is the Premier in fact prescribing a placebo designed to obscure the real issue of provincial dominance over cities – and the Province’s continuing refusal to provide the revenue tools that the City needs?

While there are policy/political issues with this legislation, it also raises a fundamental municipal governance issue that has not been highlighted to date, i.e. how Council relates to the Public Service.

The draft legislation (Bill 3) gives the Head of Council the power to “determine the organizational structure of the City” and to “hire, dismiss or exercise any other prescribed employment powers with respect to the head of any division or the head of any other part of the organizational structure.”

This latter power is proposed to apply generally with specific exceptions with respect to the Clerk, Treasurer, and statutory designated positions such as the Medical Officer of Health.

The municipal governance model in Ontario separates the political from the bureaucratic worlds in order to ensure that politicians receive impartial advice from the public service. – something that is a the heart of the “Westminster Model”. As such the city manager is responsible for management of municipal staff and accountable to council, not to the mayor or individual councillors directly. Under the US model the strong mayor hires (and fires) key city officials. The result is politicization of the hiring process and a lack of impartial advice. Will the next step be to give the Premier the power to hire (and fire) the managers of the Ontario Public Service?

Where are the studies to show that the current process is not working? The separation of political and bureaucratic powers has worked well for over a century. A change of this magnitude should not be introduced in an ad hoc manner without consultation or scrutiny.

We respectfully request that the legislation be withdrawn.

Geoff Kettel
President, Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods

A slightly edited version was published in the Toronto Star on September 3, 2022: ‘Strong Mayor’ legislation weak law that won’t solve city’s problems